Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Just Back: caught in the crossfire in Albania

Tirana, Albania's capital

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 Dominic Hipkins
24 FEBRUARY 2016 • 10:22AM

I was greeted with a machinegun-burst of babble from my excitable taxi-driver at Tirana’s Mother Teresa international airport.

The weather was biblical, with red streaks of lightning and punishing torrents of icy rain. The first cab would do just fine.

I had missed the fireworks by 15 minutes. There had been a shooting farther up the road to Shkoder, the northern town that acts as self-styled “gateway to the Albanian Alps”.

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Two neighbours, the worse for wear for Balkan firewater and nursing a hangover-inflated, decade-long grudge, had got out the Kalashnikovs. Our road was sealed off, the crime scene lit by the burning cigarette tips of local traffic cops who defiantly puffed away in the downpour.

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Communist-era concrete bunkers cropped up like molehills by the side of the road, recalling the fear of an invasion that never came. I was struck by the sight of a purple neon-piped church clinging to a nearby hillside. Tastefully done. Well, more so than the five metre mini-Big Ben we had passed earlier.

We took a diversion to the nearest town, which is host to what is possibly the world’s only George W Bush Museum. He came here once, and nobody knows why. But people remember him fondly.

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I had stumbled into a surreal otherworld and was not entirely sure how I would leave. Or, indeed, why I had come in the first place.

Someone had told me Albania was the Mediterranean before tourism transformed the character of southern Europe into a theme park for visitors from colder climates. True, Albania had character all right. It was just someone you would rather not run into at night, a gun-for-hire extra from The Godfather recreated in the age of Hieronymus Bosch.

Two nerve-racking hours later, minus one wing-mirror, and after a close call with a horse and cart, I arrived at my hotel, which stood beneath a crumbling hilltop castle. A surging nearby river seemed to be moving ever closer to the hotel front-desk.

In my room a complimentary bottle of the local Skanderbeg brandy lay in wait: the evil spirit which I held responsible for my torrid journey. Curious to discover more, I took a deep draught. It tasted of treacle soaked in turpentine and sent me into a dreamless slumber.

I woke to a breakfast whose memory makes my mouth water to this day. A fluffy feta-cheese omelette, olives the size of small plums, with homemade fig jam. And free brandy, naturally.

From my window I watched as fishermen cast nets from wooden canoes into a milky lake without horizon, dwarfed by mountains from the Land of Mordor. A scene from a vanished Europe, I thought. Centuries ago, this must have been a wild, lawless place. While today...

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